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Meet the Newry mum in her 50s whose debut novel has been snapped up by romantic fiction publishers Mills & Boon

Move over 50 Shades... mother-of-three Catherine Tinley has signed a two-book deal with the famous publishing house. She explains to Lee Henry how her Jane Austen-inspired novel Waltzing with the Earl is more romance than raunch

Generations of women have fallen in love with the page-turning romantic fiction of Mills & Boon where rugged men's men sweep the usually swooning heroine off her feet with all manner of husband-material deeds which inevitably have a happy ending.

And now a 50-year-old mother-of-three from Newry is "over the moon" that her debut novel Waltzing with the Earl will be released on the UK publisher's Regency imprint later this month, and is available for pre-order on Amazon now.

The feat of having impressed the Mills & Boon commissioners enough to publish her manuscript over the hundreds of others that are submitted each year is made even more impressive by the fact that Catherine's Jane Austen-inspired story is the first piece of writing she has ever submitted to a publisher.

Catherine studied speech and language therapy at Trinity College, Dublin and previously taught English while living for a period in Munich. She says: "I've always written stories. Long and short pieces, full novels, even, but I had never wanted to send anything to a publisher before. I never felt the work was good enough.

"This story felt different, though. I knew as soon as I'd finished the first draft that it had clicked.

"My husband Andrew, (50, and originally from Yorkshire), loved it and encouraged me to send it off to someone, so I began researching publishers. I sent it off and crossed my fingers.

"I knew that Mills & Boon receive about 50 submissions a week, so even to get past the initial filter would be an achievement.

"I told myself that it would probably be a 'no', though I hoped for a maybe. In the event, they loved it and offered me a two-book contract. I still can't believe that happened."

Waltzing with the Earl is the story of Adam, Earl of Shalford, who attempts to marry into money due to inherited debts, but ultimately falls for wealthy heiress Henrietta's more common cousin Charlotte.

Fans of Austen and fellow English Regency author Georgette Heyer will find much to love in the fledgling author's tale, though she is quick to make clear that nowhere in her pages will you find steamy sex scenes reminiscent of EL James' 50 Shades of Grey.

"The love story is very romantic," she explains, "and it's certainly getting good reviews from readers who are used to more explicit material, but I believe it's pretty clear that Adam and Charlotte fancy the hell out of each other and will have an intense physical relationship. I've just left the details to the reader's imagination."

Authenticity and accurate period detail were major considerations for her during the writing of the book. And Catherine spent many months researching the social mores and straight-laced etiquette of the time before putting pen to paper.

"In the 19th century, well-to-do women were largely controlled by the men around them, their husbands, fathers and guardians. Yet 19th century women were every bit as strong, smart and resourceful as women are now, it's just that the barriers were different.

"In those days, an unmarried woman had very few opportunities to be alone with a man, and her reputation would have been ruined if she'd had sex before she was married, so it meant that I had to tell this story without my hero and heroine falling into bed together."

Catherine wrote the book from her home in Newry and has counted on the support of her friends and family throughout. Her three children have been particularly enthusiastic about their mother's career as an author.

Danny (22) works in the Scottish Parliament, Aoife (18) is studying law, psychology and French at Strathclyde University and Maeve (16) is gearing up for her GCSEs at Sacred Heart Grammar School in Newry.

"They're delighted for me," she beams. "I'm having an official launch of the book in Eason's in Newry on Saturday, March 4 and the older two are coming home from Scotland for that.

"My youngest daughter, Maeve, is studying drama in school, and a group of them are going to do an ensemble scene from the book at the launch, which everyone is very excited about."

The reaction from other family members to Catherine's romantic escapades in literature, however, has not been uniformly positive, and perhaps understandably so.

"I have had a couple of questions about sex scenes," she reveals, "and one of my brothers told me that he would only read it if he was guaranteed there was no erotica. 'No harm to you,' he said, 'but I can't read sex scenes written by my sister.' I take his point."

When she is not writing in the evenings and arguing about the complexities of romantic fiction at the weekends, the mum-of-three keeps herself incredibly busy as manager of a Sure Start project in Belfast, providing a range of free services for local families with children aged under four years old.

"I grew up in a housing estate at the height of the Troubles," she explains.

"Unemployment was at its peak at the time in Northern Ireland, and most of the families I knew had very little. We had a great sense of community though, something that I see gradually being lost.

"Parenting is hard enough without adding isolation, poverty and conflict to the mix. In my family, I was the first person to go to university. I've often wondered what it was that allowed me to follow that path, when others didn't. I've worked out some of it.

"I was lucky enough to be blessed with a quick mind, supportive parents, and great teachers. But I saw others who weren't so lucky.

"I'm passionate about social justice, supporting families and the importance of preventing life's challenges turning into problems.

"We know that prevention is more important than trying to fix something that's already broken, and Sure Start is doing that. It's one of the best initiatives around, and is genuinely changing lives for the better. I'm proud to be a part of it."

Volunteering is also a particular passion of Catherine. She spends much of her time chairing committees and strategy groups with a focus on improving maternity services in Northern Ireland.

And the up-and-coming author has personal experience with the challenges that new mothers can face, even in the 21st century: "I was living in England, without family support, when I had my own babies, and the National Childbirth Trust was my lifeline.

"I went to their antenatal classes, got support from their breastfeeding counsellors, and benefited from great mother-to-mother wisdom in my NCT Bumps and Babies group.

"It's great to see NCT taking off locally. It's much needed. We aim to give parents knowledge, networks and a voice in the system, and local NCT volunteers are doing great work. Long may it continue."

Although Catherine is planning to keep her day job and maintain her volunteering, her attention now turns to the second manuscript of her two-book deal with the Harlequin UK-owned Mills & Boon publishing stable.

Now, though, she is halfway through her second Regency novel, a stand-alone story aimed at admirers of period pieces, and hopes to find an international audience going forward.

She says that anyone can submit stories to Mills & Boon editors, with details of genre requirements available from the famous publisher's website, and encourages those who have stories hidden away in drawers, or playing out in their imaginations, to put them down on paper and take a chance on publication.

"I wasn't writing specifically for Mills & Boon when I began what became Waltzing with the Earl," she adds. "I was simply writing a book that I'd love to read. The fact that with a bit of tweaking it was suitable for Mills & Boon was just fortuitous.

"They are really helpful with their feedback. They asked me to add internal monologues to my story, for example, to expose more of the main characters' thoughts and feelings, and that worked.

"They also suggested that I reduce the emphasis on the minor characters because they like the spotlight to be on the main couple at all times.

"I was content to do that if it meant being published by the world's biggest publisher of romantic fiction, so I'm certainly not complaining."

Catherine will be promoting her book at various literary events taking place across Northern Ireland in the weeks ahead, starting with the official launch, and admits to having been pleasantly surprised by the response to her debut Mills & Boon title from readers here.

"I've been amazed by the goodwill that there is.

"Not just from close friends but from people I've met through work and people I don't know at all who have been posting good wishes and messages on my Facebook page. I've made new friends through the book and that's amazing.

"I'm part of Women Aloud NI, a really supportive collective of local women writers, and a bunch of us are going to Dublin on March 11 to take part in a Readathon for International Women's Day, in partnership with the Irish Writers' Centre.

"We're even doing a reading on the train on the way. I'm very grateful to be part of such a vibrant literary community. Here's to many more books being published in the future."

Waltzing with the Earl by Catherine Tinley, Mills & Boon, is available to pre-order on Amazon now, priced £4.99

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